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Bulletin of the European Association of Sinological Librarians

BEASL Number 10

Does a Chinese book select itself?
Reflections on the acquisition of books in Chinese

by Bent L. Perdersen

As a librarian of a Chinese collection you have to take care of the acquisitions, but what methods will you use in selecting the titles you want to include in the collection? There is none that tells you how to do it, but gradually you develop a system that suits you and gives results. Even though each sinological librarian is an individual, the system he/she follows in selecting books is not that different from the methods used by other sinological librarians in the various countries. This is hardly a surprise, because the range of viable methods is rather limited. I will here present some ideas that have occurred to me when I have analysed my own methods of selection.

When you want to purchase a Chinese book on a certain subject, you have several possibilities to locate a suitable title. The classical method is to go through a pile of Chinese book catalogues and try to find a title that covers the required subject. You may also try other methods, which can–if you are lucky–save you from the tedious work of browsing one catalogue after another. One way is to ignore the catalogues and instead directly contact a book dealer and inquire what they can provide on the particular subject. This method, although quick, has the drawback that you have to be satisfied with the choice of your dealer. Usually this means that he will send you what he happens to have on his shelves. 

You can also wait to find a review that will give you the desired title, but this is a very slow and unsure method. Finding a review in a Western journal is more or less hopeless, because the Western reviewers tend to ignore books written in Chinese. You have better chances to find reviews in Chinese journals, but these often appear long after the book has been published. By that time the book is usually already sold out or the book dealers are not able to locate it. 

A further possibility to find a desired title is to ask your colleagues (your guanxi connections) or researchers at universities. This method is also rather slow and in most cases it fails to give results. After trying these alternative strategies in vain, you are once again faced with the fact that the classical method of going through the book catalogues piled on your desk promises the best results.

Chinese book catalogues come in two forms: a) the simple one containing title, author/editor, publisher, year of publication, information on collation and price - it is rather a list than a catalogue, and b) the informative one with an additional information on the contents.

There are basically two ways to 'read' a book list or a catalogue: you can either quickly scan it or actually read each entry. The scanning is practical, because many of the catalogues contain same titles and a quick scan is often sufficient to ascertain whether the catalogue in hand contains a title you have not encountered earlier. Also if you are looking for something specific, scanning allows you easily to spot the titles that containing the relevant Chinese characters. It is a much more time consuming to actually read the catalogues, and when this is necessary you tend to select the catalogues that are are from reliable book dealers, with whom you have a good business relationship. This is a sound practice that will prevent you from wasting your time.

When reading the book catalogues, you look for specific information that will enable you to select the book you want to order. A well known author often sells him/herself, especially, if the listed book is a new one and not just a reprint or a slightly revised edition. A title can also sell itself, when it indicates a subject which is of interest for the library. To the category of safe choices belong the modern commentaries on classical works, because they are often of a good quality even if the names of the commentators are unfamiliar. In cases where the title of the book is interesting but the author unfamiliar, it is possible to estimate the book’s merits by noting the name of the publisher. An experienced librarian knows the publishing houses that try to keep a high standard. And of course you will also check the collation, which will tell you whether the book is a large monograph, propaganda pamphlet, teaching book or merely a picture book. 

If you receive catalogues that give some information on the content of the listed books, your task of finding a relevant book is made a lot easier. Sometimes the information given is rather meagre, merely stating the obvious, e.g. the entry may only state that the book contains collected works of an author of fiction include his/her works, essays, poems, prefaces etc., that is everything that proper volumes of collected works should include. What the entry does not state is the subject matter of these writings. 

Both in selecting titles of fiction and non-fiction, your choice is made easier if you know the author. Of course, you may let yourself be tempted by a title and select a book by an unfamiliar author, but when doing this you must take the risk that you have spent part of your always too small budget in a totally useless and uninteresting book. Even the most informative book catalogues fail you, if you want to find information on the author, e.g. an entry on Ma Yinchus (1881-1982) collected works only refers to the content but, apart from the years of birth and death, does not give any further information on the author. To ascertain an author’s specialization and merits, you have to turn to other sources. However, the informative catalogue are more useful and therefore preferable to mere book lists. Even the short information entries are helpful, especially, when you have to select one title out of several about the same subject. 

When browsing a book list or catalogue, you are constantly looking for titles that will suit the profile of your library. What will trigger your interest? Naturally, your library–like any other library–has an accession policy and you will try to follow it, but at the same time you bear in mind the limits of your budget. You know that you will never be able to purchase all the interesting books offered for sale. In addition, you have undoubtedly developed your individual priorities, but being a good librarian you will remember never to follow them indiscreetly and loose sight of the overall accession policy. Some individual priorities may have have historical roots: the library may have a particular collection the librarian contributes to, or the state may have a special relationship to a field or area–a former colony, missionary activities etc. -and the librarian sees the need to cover it. All these factors–accession policy, budget, various priorites–are simultaneously in your mind and when you spot a title that fulfills most of them, your interest is roused.

When you come across a book on a subject that falls within the acquisition policy of the library, you will try to find out whether the title covers an area not well represented by the existing collection or whether it is a new interpretation/commentary on a well known subject. If the title looks very familiar, it is best to check the library catalogue to avoid buying the same book twice. If you do not recognize the author, the most expedient way to find out about him/her is to ask your colleagues what they know. Save your bulky reference works for those instances, when your inquiries fail to give results. It may happen that even your reference works will not give you the necessary information and that case you have to estimate on the basis of the title only, whether the book would be an asset to the collection or not. It may well be that the book by the–until now–unknown author opens up a new aspect of research or reopens a research area that has been neglected for some time.

After you have made up you mind that a certain book fulfills your requirements, you have to make the final purchase decision. You can make it independently, but you may also consult other experts, colleagues in the library system, university researchers and other active readers of Chinese books. Even if you often want to consult others, it is best to keep the contacts informal, because formal arrangements get bureaucratic and that slows the process making it unpractical. In ordering books, you have to act promply, because the sooner you order a book listed in a new catalogue, the higher are your chances of actually getting the book. Even today, some books are difficult to acquire only half a year after they had been made available for the market. 

Usually, you as the librarian take the initiative to acquire new books to the collection without any prompting by outsiders, but sometimes it happens that a reader approaches you and proposes that you purchase certain titles. These requests are easy to handle: either the books suit the acquisition policy or they do not. If the suggested title is within the scope of the collection, you have to evaluate the of the book - is it a popular book, a serious study in a subject or a document/collection of documents? Will it be of interest for a wider group of readers than just the one who suggested it. Finally you have to consider whether the budget allows the purchase. If the suggested title falls outside the present acquisition policy– e.g. a book on foreign relations between Taiwan and Australia or a book on economic theory with only a few references to China– you may still buy it, if you think that the book will be valuable for readers in the future.

One problem connected with the readers’ requests is that the titles do not always come from book catalogues, but are instead taken from footnotes. This means that several years have usually lapsed from their publication and that makes them difficult to obtain.Until seven years ago it was an arduous task to locate older books, if they did not happen to be listed in a recent book catalogue and even if you succeeded in locating an old book, the purchase price tended to be very quite high.
Today, probably owing to the liberation of the market in China, it is somewhat easier to get books that have been published during the past five or six years. But still today the purchasing of an older book is unproblematic only if the required title is a standard work. For example, the modern standard edition on The Song history (Songshi) published by China Book (Zhonghua shuju) is available in practically all shops stocking historical material in Hong Kong.

A special way to get Chinese books is to engage in exchange between institutions. You may either formalize the exchange contacts by signing an agreement or just send something in return after receiving material from another institute. A formal exchange agreement usually means that you have to select titles from a forwarded list. The exchange based acquisition can be problematic: the first problem is to find in your own collection works that are suited for exchange. The second problem you encounter when you receive the books sent in exchange: they may not be the ones you so picked out from the exchange list. The sending institution has always only a limited number of copies of the listed items, but it usually has several exchange partners and if the titles you requested, were also sought after by the others, the institution may have run out of copies by the time your request arrived. 

Sometimes you even receive unrequested material that is sent to you either as an advertisement or as a gift. Depending on the quality of the books, you may want to include them in the collection or discard them. You can decide freely, because advertisments and donations do not create liabilites.

The acquisition policy of The Royal Library of Denmark has traditionally stressed the humanities but in recent years social sciences, economy, law and psychology have been included. Regrading the Chinese collection, the purchases now cover a wider area than earlier but because the budget has only been increased by roughly 10%, there are severe limits as to how many titles we can buy on each. Although the collection has become wider in scope, it lacks in depth in many areas. 

As the responsible librarian, I have devoloped my own guide linies for purchasing. I still consider the traditional areas important and continue to purchase studies and commentaries on Chinese classics and classical literature, works on Chinese philosophy and religion, history and archaeology, linguistics and traditional Chinese culture. Of the 'new' areas I select titles that cover general studies in social sciences, economy, modern law including legal commentaries, modern culture, including studies on cinema and television, and general statistics, also statistics on literature, book printing, education and philosophy. On Chinese psychology very little is bought, the more insteresting titles being monographs on philosophy and religion including psychological aspects.

I also acquire books on more specialized subjects, if I know that there is an existing demand for them or if I recognize a potential demand among the readers. I am able to estimate this, because I got to know many of the readers and become acquainted with their research interests. However, I am not willing to use my limited resources on titles with very narrow specialization. Lately, there has been a growing demand on material and studies on folk religion and I have responded to this by buying among other things, collections of new year prints, the nianhua. Also art, both old and modern, is in demand, but I have only been able to afford very few actual artbooks. Instead, I have tired to meet the need by purchasing relevant catalogues and studies.

My contacts with the students and researchers enable me to see the trends in research and sometimes I can predict that a certain area will become a focus of research in the near future. For example, a couple of years ago I started to buy modern Chinese literature and studies dealing with it, and today the interest for this subject is increasing among the advanced students of Chinese in the University of Copenhagen.

Finally, some of my latest aquisitions will serve as examples of my decision making process. I will shortly comment each item in oder to point out the reasons why I ended up in choosing that particular book. 

Selected from book lists:

1) Ping’ao de yishu - chuangzuo wenda lihua by Jia Ping’ao published by Shanghai renmin 1998 offered to the price of 49.00 HKD. 240 p.

Valuation: Jia Ping’ao is a very popular author and the library has both writings by the author and writings about him.The title of the book indicates that it presents the >author’s view on writing and it may even describe his own writing process. Books on writing are always in demand and in this book the readers can hope for personal information given by Jia Ping’ao himself. The publishing house is a good one and the price reasonable. This book will be purchased.

2) Daojiao wenhua xindian ed. by Qing Xitai published by Shanghai wenyi, 1998 for a price of 90.00 HKD. 750 p.

Taoist texts and studies are wery well represented in the collection of the library. Qing Xitai is a well known and highly esteemed scholar in Taoist studies. The collection already includes some of Qing Xitai’s works, e.g. the four volumed history on Taoism edited by him. Because both the editor and the publisher are known as reliable, the book is well worth acquiring. This book will be purchased.

3) Zhongguoren de maobing by Zhang Pingzhi published by Zhongguo shehui, 1998 for a price of 48.50 HKD. 390 p.

A book on the shortcomings of the Chinese (presumably in social respect ) sounds interesting, especially because the author–although unknown to me–is himself a Chinese. The publishing house was established in 1989 and has published some good books. The price is low and I take the chance and purchase it. (Now that the book has arrived it can be noted that the book is divided into subjects reflecting human relations and conditions. There are chapters on personality, behaviour of scholars, problems in food and agriculture, manners of speech and gerneral behaviour, marriage and other family issues. It seems to be an interesting book.)

4) Zhonghua renmin gongheguo xin xingfa shiyi yu panli fenxi quanshu ed. by Li Kangtai published by Guoji wenhua, 1998 for the prize of 232.00 HKD. 510 p. 

A handbook on criminal law is usually of interest, but in this case the library has already presentations of the new criminal law and also some studies in the effects of these laws in the ‘new’ China. Considering the relative high price and the fact that titles on similar subjects are already in the collection, this book will not be purchased.

5) 1998 jingji zhanwang ed. by Guojia xinxi zhongxin published by Zhongguo jihua, 1998 for the price of 403.50 HKD. 3 vols.

I am usually not willing to purchase books that try to predict the future, because they consist largely of conjectures and wishful thinking. The future, particularly in economy, is unpredictable: just think about the sudden emergence of the recent economic crises in Asia. Studies on the already visible effects of the economic decisions and development processes are preferable. This book will not be purchased.

6) The library’s collection includes very few of studies on Chinese essays, so two new titles on the subject will be acquired - namely: Zhongguo jindai sanwenshi by Xie Piaoyun published by Zhongguo wenlian, 1997 (387 p.) for 45.50 HKD and Zhongguo sanwen da cidian ed. by Lin Fei publishted by Zhongzhou guji, 1997 (860 p.) for 126.00 HKD.

7) Xinjiang gonglu yunshushi published by Renmin jiaotong, 1998 for the price of 86.00 HKD. 360 p. In the last ten years the Renmin jiaotong has published studies on both the nationwide and provincial transport systems in China. The Library collects these monographs and this one on Xinjiang province is a must.

Selected from book catalogues:

1) Shanxi tongshi ed. by QiaoZhiqiang published by Zhonghua shuju, 1997 for the domestic prize of 130.00 renminbi (export price will approximately be 300.00 HKD). The description of the book informs that it is an all around history of the province from early times to the 1911 revolution and that it discusses politics, economy, military affairs, culture and include some biographies of local notables. Exactly what you expect of a tongshi (a comprehensive history). Local history is relevant for our readers and the book will be purchased.

2) 1995 nian quanguo 1% renkou chouyang diaocha ziliao published by Zhongguo tongji. The presentation of the first volume included a general description of the >material. Each volume will concentrate on one province or a major city. The Danish social scientists are generally interested of the population in China. This publication contains data that can be used also by people with only a rudimentary knowledge of the Chinese language. Although the price of each volume is relatively high, around 250.00 to 300.00 HKD, the volumes will be acquired, because of the high interest among the readers.

3) Bei Song huangling ed. by Henan sheng wenwu kaogu yanjiusuo published by Zhongzhou guji, 1997 (589 p.) for ca. 250.00 HKD. It is mentioned in the presentation that between 1992 and 1995 the Henan Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology made an overall survey and some test excavations of eight Sung masoleums and twentytwo tombs of empresses. In addition to the report on the survey and excavations, the book also describes the spirit roads with its guardian figures. There is a constant demand on archaeological reports from Chinese and this particular book will give more details on the culture of the Sung emperors. >The book will be acquired. (It has proved to be a well produced book with excellent line drawings and photos of good quality. The text is in the best tradition of archaeological reports: it presents the material and downplays the interpretations).


© EASL 2013
Matthias Kaun

established 1995